Why You Need More Food Less Often
The question of how often to eat is a big one; people are constantly arguing over whether it is better to eat multiple smalls meals per day or three big meals per day. For years, we have been told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and that it is detrimental to skip a meal, but we are now being bombarded with messaging that intermitting fasting is the key to success, so what gives? In reality, the “best” option will vary from person to person, however, for most people the answer probably lies somewhere in between. Regardless of where you stand, one thing is for certain; you need better food, and you probably need to eat more food less often.
I have written at length about what to eat, what to avoid, and why, but the question of how often to eat is still confusing for a lot of people. After decades of being told to focus on eating mini meals to boost metabolism with no success, it’s no wonder people are confused and frustrated. The theory behind eating multiple mini meals per day is that it will “boost” metabolism because the process of digestion slightly raises your metabolism (or energy output), so eating more frequently would (in theory) help to burn more calories, but that’s not the way it works. Why? Because your health and your weight have everything to do with hormones, and little to do with calories.
Every time that you put food in your mouth you are triggering reactions in you body. Although many people think of their body as a garburator; you eat food, it does its thing, and comes out the other end, there is a lot more to it. Every time that you eat, you ingest energy for your body to use, however, because our body is unable to use all of the food at one time it stores excess food as energy for later. Insulin is the key hormone that manages the process of this food storage. Every time that you eat, insulin rises to help you store the excess energy in two separate ways; 1) glucose (sugar) from the food is converted to glycogen that is stored in the liver, however, there is limited space, so 2) once the liver has reached its maximum capacity, it starts to turn the excess glucose (sugar) into fat. While some of this fat is stored in the liver, much of it is sent to fat deposits in the body, or body fat. While this is a rather complicated process, there is no limit to the amount of fat that can be stored.
Although this storage of fat may seem unfortunate, it is done by the body for a reason. The storage of excess food as fat is done as a protective mechanism for the body; so when you are not eating, the body can use its fat and convert it back into glucose for energy. Glycogen from the liver is the body’s most easily accessible energy source, but once it has been used up the body will begin to convert body fat back to energy. Fat deposits or body fat are simply forms of back-up energy for the body to use once available glucose is no longer present.
So, what’s the problem with eating multiple mini meals per day? Every time that you eat, you are singling insulin to store the excess food you are eating as fat for energy. So, if you are constantly grazing throughout the day, you are constantly triggering insulin, constantly storing food as fat, and never allowing your stored body fat to be converted back into energy. Capeesh?
Think of it like a gas tank; if your gas tank is already full, but you continue to eat and graze all day long, you are constantly over-flowing your gas tank with gas that it does not need, and this extra gasoline will be stored as fat on the body. If you start eating the moment you roll out of bed, snack and eat all day long, you are always in a fed state and therefore never allow your body to use its back-up fuel, fat. Even though you may be choosing whole food or healthy options, if you are constantly eating you never give your body the time to use stored food (fat) for energy. Let’s look at an example:
7:00am – Breakfast : Yogurt + Granola + Fruit
10:00am – Snack: Apple + Almonds
12:00pm – Lunch: Soup + Salad
2:00pm – Snack: Granola Bar
5:00pm – Snack: Crackers + Hummus
7:00pm – Dinner: Whole Wheat Pasta + Ground Turkey + Tomato Sauce
9:00pm – Snack: Dark Chocolate
In this example, the individual is eating every 2-3 hours, which means they are triggering their insulin every 2-3 hours. Although they may be choosing whole foods, “light” options and smaller meals, the issue lies in the fact that they are eating frequently, not the actual size of their meals. Eating smaller meals more often is not the key to boosting metabolism, to weight loss or health. Metabolism and weight loss have everything to do with hormones and less to do with calories. Choosing to eat 1,800 calories across 6 meals as opposed to 3 meals is will likely not make a big difference and, if in the end, will cause more harm than good. Instead, eating a well-balanced meal that satiates you for 4, 5 or 6 hours will help to ensure that you do not trigger your insulin every time that you eat and, instead, allow your body to use stored energy (body fat) for fuel.
For many, shifting from grazing and snacking all day to only eating 3 meals per day is a huge change. People often think there is no way that they could go more than 2 or 3 hours without eating, but in reality, that is what our bodies were designed to do. Our bodies are equipped with the tools to take in food, used what is needed, and store excess for later when food is no longer available. The issue today lies in the fact that food is always available so we never really get a chance to use our bodies the way they were designed to function. Instead, we snack between meals, have late night treats, eat breakfast when we have not truly fasted, and constantly trigger our insulin and fat storage in the process.
The purpose of eating is not to eat less and avoid calories, it is to eat enough food to fuel yourself and seek nutrients in the process. The meals that you eat should be well-balanced, nutrient-dense, and keep you fuelled for multiple hours, not peckish within an hour or two. So, instead of opting for mini meals and light options, opt for whole foods and meals that keeps you full. If you are choosing a smoothie for breakfast because you think it is the “right” choice, but end up needing a snack within an hour, rethink your breakfast. You are better off starting your day with two eggs, toast and avocado that will keep you going until lunch, allowing you to balance your blood sugar and utilize body fat for fuel, instead of snacking in between meals.
The Bottom Line
Although there is no one method that will work for everyone, trying to eat mini meals or graze throughout the day is not the solution, especially if you are trying to lose weight. If you are constantly eating, your body will never have the opportunity to burn body fat, and although it may help in the short-term, in the long-term it will impede the process. Of course, things may vary from one day to the next depending on your energy, your sleep, your stress and your activity level, but regardless, eating more food less often is always going to be the best choice.